It was not the most generous of queries, it has to be admitted.
It was – however – one of the questions on everyone’s lips.
The BBC’s respected Sunderland commentator Nick Barnes, opening the batting for the media in Gus Poyet’s pre-match briefing ahead of Monday’s Tottenham match, light-heartedly wondered whether Ji Dong-Won playing while ineligible might have been more of a help for the opposition than for the Cats.
Poyet, who did not get much change out of the South Korea striker before he departed for the Bundesliga, was unmoved.
Ji (pictured right), he replied, was “a fantastic professional” for conducting himself so well in the circumstances.
Therein lies the rub of this Sunderland season: the problems whichhave come out publicly only appear to be half of a red-and-white story which is yet to be told.
Paolo di Canio’s failed tenure, Roberto de Fanti and his skewed idea of scouting, a striker being arrested... It is actually only half the tale.
Take the Ji situation, for example. Poyet had known for months, long before the story emerged yesterday.
The player, it now has become clear, did not know why he was not being picked – so the Sunderland boss asked permission to inform him and had to wait months for the confusion over the South Korea forward’s registration to clear up.
It is just one of the previously untold tales on Wearside this season.
No wonder Poyet, as Charlie Oatway admitted last week, is losing sleep and days off while trying to rectify a situation in danger of spiralling out of control.
He said yesterday: “You know what, I’m pleased it was in an (official club) statement today. I was asking myself: ‘Why me?’ No one says nothing and now I need to come here in front of you (the press) and say everything! Me? When I have nothing to do with it?”
Poyet is full of admiration for Ji’s “special” professionalism. He added: “I was aware of it when it happened and when we realised. I couldn’t believe it when I found out. The problem is, I’m very honest with the club. We didn’t know how long it would take and I had to inform the player.
“I asked permission after a certain time to inform the player because with all respect the player was probably thinking ‘What the? He’s not even picking me on the bench.’ He didn’t know, I had to tell him and he was incredible. You have to be a special player to do what Ji did.”
It became clear as the dust settled on the confusing saga Sunderland’s wrongdoing – which they said in a statement they did not accept – was minimal.
Indeed, it was the Premier League who seem mostly to blame for the registration issue, which was, according to the club, a “technical” breach. They were the ones who decided to keep the situation quiet, which only served to fuel conspiracy theories and feelings of injustice from other clubs. It is a curious situation, really. The football authorities are often happy to brief journalists when clubs, players or managers are in the wrong – it was no coincidence Alan Pardew’s likely sanction was revealed in most newspapers long before it was officially handed to him – but when it comes to procedural errors where they are culpable, there is a willingness to hush it up.
Sunderland might have said something too, of course. They said yesterday the “matter is closed” and with Premier League clubs having spurned the opportunity to raise it at a board meeting yesterday, it does appear that it will be the end of things.
There is more sympathy with their position, though: why would they visit controversy on themselves?
It is a slightly unneccesary distraction for the team and the manager. Poyet has football matches to win, starting with a trip to White Hart Lane on Monday Sunderland need to get something out of. Poyet said: “I don’t think the Ji situation will affect the team.
“I think if there are too many things happening around the club it will affect the team. I believe that. I know people think it shouldn’t but it does. I don’t think we have too many problems. It comes as a surprise you can say. People maybe now know why we couldn’t play him.
“I’m not too much into comments and I don’t have Twitter but I can imagine some people love Ji and they’re saying when I wasn’t playing him every week and he’s not even on the bench they were killing me, but they didn’t know. I hope they now understand why.”
Having endured justified criticism for leaving Adam Johnson on the bench for the West Ham game, Poyet has to get his team right.
He took that on board, but felt his approach was actually on the verge of working until two defensive lapses allowed the Irons to take a vice-like grip on the game. “I’m not the type of person who blames somebody else before blaming myself,” he said, reflecting on the criticism of his team selection.
“I like to analyse what I did right and wrong and how the team performs. After the game everyone is a manager. After then it is too easy, everyone can comment on it but no-one asks you what you would do.
“If you pick a team and then the team I pick loses you can say ‘I told you so’ but you don’t know because the team you play might have lost 7-0. After the game, it is too easy (to criticise).
“I need to make decisions before the game and I think that at the end of the day we were the better team, we played to the best of our ability, we won every stat but we didn’t win the game.
“More than that, I hope. I hope this team, in the situation it is in, can keep doing that.”